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THE IMPORTANCE OF DEFENSE

The importance of defense cannot be understated. So much attention is given to individual player statistics like points and assists, but it's important to realize that, when you evaluate players, half of the game of basketball is spent on the defensive end -- offense is only half of it.
We use the old cliche -- especially at the end of close games if the score is tied or you have the lead -- that 'if the other team doesn't score, you can't possibly lose'.

I know football coaches often aspire for shutouts with the philosophy that it's impossible to lose if the other team doesn't score. In basketball it's not realistic to shut someone out, but it is realistic to shut someone out for stretches of time. For example, if you can shut someone out for four to six consecutive possessions, then you have a good chance of really taking control of that basketball game.

At the championship level I have never seen a championship caliber team that was not strong defensively. There is really no choice for a team that wants to win a championship but to excel defensively.


DEFENSIVE PHILOSOPHIES

There are at least three different defensive philosophies. Which one a coach uses depends upon what that coach believes in, what he or she feels most comfortable teaching, and which philosophy suits the team best.

In no particular order, the first one would be a solid approach to defense where you want to keep the ball out of the paint and you want to have a lot of your defenders off the ball in the help area. Coaches call the help area 'the lane area' and many solid teams will have their defenders on the weak side, all the way in the middle of the lane on the help line. That creates a situation where there are a lot of bodies in the paint and even if someone were to drive or get the ball into the post, it is really difficult to score because there are so many bodies in there.

The philosophy of a solid defense is not to allow lay-ups or easy shots.

That defensive philosophy was really the most prevalent in the 70s and early 80s and there are still many successful teams that use those principles. The development in basketball that has changed the popularity of that defense is the 3-point shot. When you have people off the ball in the lane, it means that a skip pass or a kickout -- when the ball is passed out of the paint back to the perimeter -- to the perimeter or a quick ball reversal could result in a very open 3-point shot. So a lot of coaches have come up with different ways of trying to defend the 3-point shot.

Another defensive philosophy is to apply great pressure to create turnovers and disrupt the offense.

The philosophy of a pressure defense is not to allow the offense to do what they want to do. Every coach has certain plays or patterns that they believe will work and that their teams practice every day. A pressure defense attempts to stop teams from running their offense. That's a very frustrating thing to play against. It often results in poor shots by the offense and it also results in more turnovers by the offense.

The downfall in playing pressure defense is when you play a team which is an excellent ball handling and passing team that can handle the pressure. In those situations your defense is further extended, usually outside the arc, or you're trapping. When you're not able to force the turnovers and they're able to penetrate or run their offense, usually they get a pretty good shot because there's less help in the lane.

The third defensive philosophy that a coach might have is one of multiple defenses, where you play a lot of different defenses for two purposes.

First, to find the defense that exploits the other teams weakness.

And secondly, to disguise and change defenses so that it is very difficult for the offense to recognize what you are doing.

I think if you look at most teams, they'll espouse one of those philosophies: either a very solid defense that prevents easy shots from the opposition, or a pressure defense that tries to disrupt the offense and create turnovers, or a multiple defensive team that really tries to exploit the weakness of the opposition and even confuse the opposition.


BALL REVERSAL

Ball reversal is when the ball goes from one side of the court to the other side of the court. Ball reversal is very important for a number of reasons.

First, moving the ball requires the defense to move. Whenever the defense has to move a lot, the chance of someone missing an assignment or missing a movement is better. Coaches say that ball movement causes defenses to break down. If you move the ball enough, sooner or later a defensive player isn't going to react and someone's going to get an open shot.

The other reason ball reversal is important is in terms of post play. If someone is trying to keep the ball out of the post and fronting a post player on one side, if the ball is quickly reversed, that means the offensive post player has a great chance to have that defender on his back and be wide open on the other side of the court.

Secondly, ball reversal really allows people to do a lot of screening. Most screening in basketball is done away from the ball, so when the ball is swung from one side to the other side, you're able to really get a good screening game going.

Ball reversal is something that is great offensively and is something that pressure defenses especially want to eliminate.


MAN TO MAN DEFENSE

The most common defense is the man-to-man. There has actually been studies done that look at something called the DER -- the defensive efficiency rating.

A defensive efficiency rating is 'the number of point scored divided by the number of possessions'. A very good defensive efficiency rating would be 0.75 or lower -- that would be outstanding.

People have actually charted multiple games and looked at which defenses have the best defensive efficiency rating and man-to-man usually comes out the highest.

Now, there are some programs like Temple and Princeton that play almost exclusively zone and are some of the best defensive teams in the nation. Veteran coaches often say that there are a lot of ways to skin a cat, so there is no one way to be successful defensively; however, the majority of very strong defenses teams are strong in their man-to-man.

Where a man-to-man begins to pick up the offense varies from team to team. A team like Arkansas likes to pick up a full 94 feet. Other teams will only guard you from the 3-point arc and in. So man-to-man defenses will range from 94 all the way down to 19 feet. Again that depends upon whether you want to be solid and just try to stop the other team from scoring or do you want to be more aggressive and really disrupt the other team -- frustrate them -- and try to create turnovers.


MAN-TO-MAN VERSUS A ZONE DEFENSE

The choice between a man-to-man or a zone defense depends on a coaches' philosophy, who they are playing, as well as their personnel.

Right now in college basketball, most teams have one or two zones defenses in their package; however, most coaches like the man-to-man to be their primary defense. Most coaches' experiences match what the facts show and the facts show that overall the man-to-man defense is most effective.

However, a zone may be better for certain teams or against certain teams or in certain situations.

Coaches will often use zones for two reasons.

The first reason would be if their man-to-man was not being successful.

The second reason is to simply change the defense and to see how the offense reacts.

Coach Henson used to do something at Illinois that I really like. During time-outs when the other team would be setting up a offensive strategy clearly to go against our man-to-man, he would change to zone. And we would stay in a zone until the other teams scored. It was interesting that many times we'd end up playing zone for quite a while just because the other team was in a comfort level against the man and really had to adjust to playing against the zone.

I think a lot of coaches like to include a zone just to be able to change up and see how the offense reacts. There are some teams that are very good against the man-to-man that are not good against the zone. So I think it's important to have at least a couple different defenses in your package, but most people really like the man-to-man. Many coaches, including myself, also believe that a better man-to-man defense also results in a better zone defense. And the reason is: in a zone defense, the person guarding the ball still has to stop penetration, players in the lane still have to help when the ball gets to the paint, and post defenders still have to try to deny easy passes. Those are all principles that are exercised in man-to-man defense, but still have to be executed in the context of a zone defense.

The majority of coaches want to have a strong man-to-man and also feel that those principles will make their zones better as well.

Personnel with also dictate what kind of defenses you can play. For example, our team last year was very quick and we could really play pressure defense. This year's team often has a bigger lineup out there and physically we are not well equipped to deny and trap people 30 or 40 feet from the basket. But we should be able to be a much better solid defensive team where we have some people in the lane and have bigger bodies that make it a lot harder for other teams to get lay-ups and easy shots.

Last year's team could force turnovers better and force tempo better. This years team should be able to have a better defensive field goal percentage and be a better defensive rebounding team.

Personnel will also affect what kind of zones you play. For example, last year's team was smaller and a 2-3 zone was much better for us because it allowed us to keep some more people in the paint to discourage big people from getting the ball down low, but we could also close out on 3-point shooters.

This year's team because we're bigger is a better 3-2 or 1-3-1 team. We just have longer arms and we can keep the ball out of the high and low post a lot better without having to put a lot of people in the paint.


THE 2-3 ZONE

The most difficult position in the 2-3 zone are the two guards up front. They really have to cover 4 spots. They have to cover the point, the two wings and the high post. The back line people will give them some help with the wing, but they can only do that temporarily.

For example, if one of the back line players in a 2-3 zone comes up to cover the wing, that means the baseline is now wide open. If they throw the ball to the baseline, that means your center has to leave the basket, which leaves the post open. So there are a lot of problems with bringing you back line players up in the 2-3 zone. That's why our back line players come up to cover the wings and then the guards will bump them back to their original spots.

The guards really have to work extremely hard to cover the two wings, the top of the KEY, as well as the high post in the 2-3 zone. One guard must cover the hight post while the other guard is covers the wing. As a result there are usually 3 bigger players occupying the 2 blocks and the middle.

The 2-3 zone typically does a pretty good job of keeping the ball out of the middle and forcing people to beat you from the 3-point arc. If you're guards work extremely hard and are extremely quick, you can contest a lot of those 3-point shots and you have a very good defense.

Ideally it's the defense that keeps the ball out of the paint and the guards work hard enough to contest perimeter shots.


THE 3-2 ZONE

The 3-2 zone is just the opposite. The two back line players have to cover 4 spots and work extremely hard. They have to cover the two corners and the two blocks, so the two players on the back of a 2-3 zone have to work extremely hard.

The strength of the 3-2 zone is covering the perimeter. You really have five players outside of the lane at the start of the possession, so you can get to the 3- point arc pretty quickly.

The key to the 3-2 zone is I think is having a very big player at the point who when the ball is on the wing, can drop down and really discourage the ball from going inside.

So the strength of a 3-2 zone is really being able to cover the perimeter, but I do think that you need some quickness from the two people on the back line and you need a big player at the point to be able to drop down and help at the post when the ball goes to the wing or the corner.


THE 1-3-1 ZONE

Probably the other zone of interest today is the 1-3-1.

The 1-3-1 is not played that often because I feel you need very specialized personnel to play it well. If you have long quick athletes, the 1-3-1 can be a devastating zone defense.

The 1-3-1 -- unlike the 2-3 and 3-2 -- places the defenders in passing lanes.

The point on a 1-3-1 and the 2 wings are literally in the passing lanes trying to prevent ball movement in addition to trying to contest shots. They're literally trying to prevent passes. The wings are trying to prevent the pass from what we call the guard spot, which would be a spot off center above the 3-point arc to the baseline.

They have to have big long arms, be hard to pass over and be quick enough to close out on the person from that guard spot if they should they should threaten to shot.

The point has to prevent ball reversal. That person has to be very big and be in the middle to discourage easy ball reversal. He is positioned at the top of the key with his arms extended.

So if you have very long quick athletes, who are hard to pass around, it's simple hard to attack a 1-3-1. It's very difficult to pass the ball against and if they are quick enough to contest shots when people do get into shooting position, you have an extremely hard defense to play against.


THE MATCH-UP ZONE

The match-up zone is one of the most confusing, yet simple, and difficult defenses to play against. If you don't understand a match-up zone, it's very frustrating to try to attack.

Basically a match-up zone in nothing more than a very soft switching man-to-man.

It has defenders go to certain areas -- just like you do in a zone -- but once you are in that area you have to identify a person that you are covering and are responsible for when they catch the ball. When the offensive player moves, you then have to trade that offensive player with another with one of your teammates.

It's very difficult to play against because there are a lot of people in the paint, which makes it hard to score off penetration or post play, but yet it's hard to get a wide open 3-point shot, because people know who they are responsible for and screening doesn't work as well either because people switch on those screens.

The most successful offenses against the match-up simply run their man-to-man offense and wait for two things. They wait either for the defense to break down and miss a switch or they wait until there is a real mismatch. Because the defense is switching, you could end up with a 6-10 player on your point guard or you could end up with a very small player on one of your bigger players. So the key to the match-up is to realize it's not a zone, and nothing more than a soft switching man-to-man.

The best offense is to run your man-to-man offense continuously and wait until either the defense breaks down or until you have a tremendous mismatch.


THE BOX-AND-ONE ZONE

The box-and-one is a zone with 4 people and a man-to-man on one player. This defense is almost always used when the opposition has one great offensive player and stopping that player is a key to the game.

When you play a box-and-one, there are usually other players on the opposition who will get open shots. The question is whether or not they can make it. The purpose of the box-and-one is to stop the best player on the other team when that player is really a dominate offensive player and his or her team really revolves around their ability to score.

It's not a good defense at all against a balanced offensive team because the other 4 players can get some open looks. The triangle and two is a 3 person zone with a man-to-man against 2 outstanding offensive players. These defenses often work extremely well at the high school level, where there is often one or two outstanding players that are the strength of the team. And a box-and-one or a triangle-and-two can help you focus on stopping those players.

When you play a box-and-one or traingle-and-two defense, the man-to-man players never leave the person they're guarding. You don't have to help, you don't have to worry about anything else other than stopping that person.

At the college level, these defenses aren't used very often because you have more good players on the court and that 3 or 4 person zone will usually give up some wide open jump shots. So when you're playing a team of 4 or 5 good offensive players, it just not a good real sound philosophy. But at the high school level and especially in situations where the other team has one of two offensive players that are the most talented individuals, they are very good options to go to.


THE FULL COURT PRESS VERSUS A HALF COURT PRESS

A full court press is clearly more aggressive. If you are a team that would benefit by being aggressive in terms of superior depth or superior quickness it makes a lot of sense to press full court as much as you can. On the other hand, as Pete Carill of Princeton often used to say -- who had great teams, but were not extremely quick: 'Why do I want to fast break and press when I have slow players?

It's just the common sense of what's best for my personnel. One of the difficult things about a full court press is that if you are truly playing a good team they will usually have good offensive players who pass the ball pretty well. If your philosophy is to beat the best teams on your schedule, the best teams usually won't lose to a full court press. They'll pass well enough and be able to score well enough where they can hurt a press. So I'm not a big full court press person because I've never seen the great teams make enough mistakes to get beat against the full court press.

But if you are quicker, deeper or really have the talent advantage, a full court press could assure you that you can force enough mistakes and force enough possessions in the game where talent will win out. When you have superior talent or depth or quickness, the last thing you want to do is play a 50 point game and a full court press will often create enough turnovers and possessions where you'll get the score into the 70s and 80s. And depth and talent can really take the game over.

I favor more half court trapping, because when someone passes out of a full court trap, the defense has to cover a lot of ground to catch the ball and prevent a lay-up.

In a half court situation, I think if someone passes out of a trap, you don't have to recover as far to try to get back into the play and prevent a lay-up. I think half court trapping is a bit more conservative. Sometimes its also more difficult to play against because of the back court rule. If you trap someone right past half court, they don't have the benefit of being able to throw the ball behind them. So I personally like the half court trap. I don't think you need to cover as much ground, I don't think you need as much quickness, I don't think you need as much depth and sometimes it's even harder to play against because of the back court rule.


DENYING THE BALL IN THE LAST MINUTES OF A CLOSE GAME

It's really critical for the offense to get the ball in the hands of the best decision makers and foul shooters at the end of a close game.

Defensively you want to do everything you can to prevent that. But if they have good screens in their press break, that could be difficult to do sometimes. Even if you put your best defender on their best offensive player, if that player gets 2 or 3 consecutive screens, he's going to get the ball or you're going to have to switch and probably have a bigger slower player on that person and they're going to get the ball anyway.

So, late game offensive execution is really one of the most important things to winning close games. That's why it's important as a coach to go over late game situations. For example, yesterday in practice we put 1:00 minute up on the clock and we were ahead 74-70. We really had to work at making sure that we don't turn the ball over and that we get the ball to the right person in those situations.

Defensively, probably the only thing you can do in that situation is go with your best defensive lineup. Even if it means taking your best offensive players out of the game, even if it means taking you best big man out of the game, you probably have to go with your best defensive lineup. That way switching on screens is more effective because you never end up with a weak defender on a good player. You're probably going to have to do some switching and denial and trapping to create turnovers and get -- or keep -- the ball out of the best player on the opposite team's hands.

The only other thing you can do with guarding the best foul shooter or decision maker on the other team is to trap them as soon as they get the ball and not foul them. Make them pass the ball to someone else and then foul that other person. Make it hard for the key player to get the ball back once they pass out of the trap. That requires a lot of work on late game situations in practice.

Coaches as a group do not do enough of those late game situations saying ... 'OK, we're down by 10 with two minutes left or we're up by 2 with 30 seconds left. I think coaches as a group need to do those kind of things. But so many of us are so intent on making our teams better so that we are in a position to win the game. We spend a lot of time on making sure we can play those first 38 minutes well and we probably don't spend enough time on what to do in those last 2 minutes against good competition.


DEFINITIONS:

THE BASELINE: The end lines of the basketball court.

THE PAINT: Also referred to as THE LANE, is the painted area between the free throw (or foul) line and the end line or baseline. Also referred to as THE POST because it resembles the profile of a post.

THE LOW POST: That part of THE LANE which is closest to the basket.

THE HIGH POST: That part of THE LANE which is closest to the foul line.

THE KEY: The area on the court which includes THE LANE and the FREE THROW CIRCLE. So called because that area looks somewhat like to a key.

THE ELBOW: The point on the court where the free throw line intersects with one of the lane's two side lines.

THE BLOCK: A small painted block-shaped spot located outside and on each side of THE LANE. THE BLOCK is the first alignment mark for the positioning of rebounders along the lane area when a foul shot is being attempted. It is the largest mark on each side of THE LANE, is the closest mark to the basket and is about 1/3 of the way from the basket to the free throw line.

THE STRONG SIDE: The side of the court where the ball is in play or where the ball handler is positioned.

THE WEAK SIDE: The side of the court opposite from the STRONG SIDE or opposite the side of the court where the ball handler is positioned.

THE LEFT WING: The area to left of the foul circle, as the player faces the basket.

THE RIGHT WING: The area to right of the foul circle, as the player faces the basket.
 
 

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